A Fatuous Exercise: Australia and the Security Council

Australia, for the most part, is invisible in international politics and rarely rates a mention in international media.

– M. Connors1

Why do countries bother? In a sense, a position as a temporary member on the UN Security Council is merely an award to the best and smoothest briber – such a country can claim some ceremonial status, not more. The gang of five retain their vice like grip on proceedings, allowing some faux respectability to be conferred on the other ten members who do the decent thing and innocuously rotate. Some commentators have been frank enough to identify the farce and call it as it is.

For Remy Davison, Jean Monnet Chair in Politics and Economics at Monash University, Australia’s bid to join the party is “much ado about nothing”. Till, of course, you start looking at the price tag – “the Mandarins in Canberra (bad pun intended) are spending $55 million (a far cry from the original $15 million estimate) of the over-burdened Australian taxpayers’ money on this vainglorious project” (The Conversation, Septeber 7). All of this, as the Australian foreign ministry, known by its more crude acronym DFAT, has been shedding jobs and implementing budget cuts. This might be considered appalling, till one realises that Australia’s number of missions is a paltry 100 and shrinking.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has been boosted for this mad bid by what she claims is support from Pacific Island states and states in the Caribbean. She is attempting, in clumsy fashion, to push Australia’s case in New York. She is persistently overstating Australia’s “unique” claims, sounding repeatedly like a Toyota advertisement on a loop. “Whether you look at the Pacific, whether you look at Asia, we believe Australia is placed to bring a perspective to the UN Security Council that our competitors could not” (The Australian, September 24).

In one way, the megalomaniac former Australian Prime Minister and Foreign Minister’s legacy does live on in the leader that knifed him. In 2008, Kevin Rudd endeavoured to distract himself, and his country, from more pressing needs, and place Australia on the campaign trail for a UN Security Council seat. He was already behind the competition – Luxembourg and Finland had commenced their campaigns in 2001 and 2002 respectively.

The explanation for undertaking this task is shielded by an assortment of justifications – Australia is a punchy, above average middle power with weight on the scales of international politics. (This is fantasy, but let’s not let that muddy the narrative.) It participated in the Cambodian peace process (let’s ignore the troubles that came along with that) and has been a keen ‘international citizen’.

Former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans has tried to concoct some idea of a national interest in being a temporary UNSC member. “There is not just sentiment involved here, but hard-headed calculation.” Australia can be seen to be an “active player” in cooperative solutions dealing with “mass atrocity crimes, terrorism, trafficking in drugs, arms and people and cross-border aggression”. He calls this, somewhat obliquely, a “general reputational benefit” that the Scandinavians well understand. Evans might be right about a Scandinavian angle, but that is where the comparison falls flat.

Naturally, the report card for membership ignores the fact that Australia cantered along with Washington in the ill-fated war in Iraq and remains a heavy contributor to the Afghan war effort, despite not being in NATO. That is the lot of being America’s janissaries and some things are best kept quiet. The best Australia can do is extol their skills at bribing countries in the General Assembly.

Two other contenders – Luxembourg and Finland – also chalk up points in the bribery stakes – their international aid budgets are generous, and, just in case the UN voters are going to be kind, they might want an innocuous power like Luxembourg on the committee. Why bother going for a heavy gun when you can go for an air rifle? Australia, interestingly enough, is too innocuous to bother anybody, but significant enough to look like an American attachment, dangling on Uncle Sam’s coattails.

Australia might be invisible, but it’s an invisibility that vanishes at certain moments when the voting patterns are examined. This act of sham bribery is unlikely to succeed, but should it transpire that a seat is won, Canberra’s role will be barely noticeable.

  1. New Global Politics of the Asia Pacific, 60. []

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.